U Haul Special Report

Danger on the Road

Updated Sat. Oct. 21 2006 6:56 PM ET

Chad Derrick and Laurie Few, W-FIVE

November 30, 2005. Forty-five year-old Gordon Annis was traveling in a U-Haul truck near Campbellford, Ontario, helping his cousin move to Peterborough.

His mother, Judy, remembers the night like it was yesterday. In an interview with W-FIVE, she recalled, "He made it there okay but on the way back, fate stepped in."

Gordon was riding in the passenger seat of the truck. He wasn't wearing a seatbelt.

The driver, James Milne, took a curve too fast and flew off the road. The truck landed on its side and Gordon was thrown from the U-Haul. He was crushed to death when the truck flipped onto him.

Judy Annis explained to W-FIVE, "The seatbelt wasn't working." She added, "He couldn't do up his seatbelt, and when the truck went out of control, there was nothing to hold him back."

Milne pleaded guilty to careless driving. At the hearing, the Provincial Prosecutor, Andrew Fordham, told the court that police had found the passenger seatbelt -- the one Annis should have been wearing -- was "locked in the retract position and not operable." Police also found that the previous renter of the U-Haul truck had also "found the seatbelt in question did not work."

A U-Haul truck is seen here getting inspected during a W-FIVE safety test.

Gordon Annis' mother, Judy, and his teenage daughter, Carol, have been left behind, tormented by one question. Why would a big company like U-Haul rent out a truck with a seatbelt that didn't work?

"I mean, as far as mechanical is concerned, I believe it was okay, but the seatbelt didn't work," said Judy Annis.

Failing the Test

W-FIVE discovered, there are many unsafe U-hauls on Canadian roads.

With 15,000 dealers and 170,000 trucks and trailers on the road in North America, U-Haul is the largest "do-it yourself" moving company on the continent. Its orange, black and white trademark is instantly recognizable to most Canadians. But a W-FIVE investigation has once again found that, all too often, U-Haul trucks don't meet provincial safety standards.

In last season's "Risky Move" episode, W-FIVE safety-tested U-Hauls in four major Canadian cities. Toronto, Montreal, Vancouver and Calgary.

The test results were shocking to W-FIVE's viewers: broken gear shifts, dangerous frames and no rear brakes were just some of the problems exposed by the mechanical checkups. Thirteen U-Haul trucks were tested by licensed mechanics to see if they met the provincial standards. All thirteen failed.

Boucher says 'We're looking at the age of our fleet and we're going to replace the age, our oldest trucks.'

In 2005, W-FIVE's Victor Malarek asked U-Haul's Canadian vice-president Claude Boucher to respond to the list of safety failures uncovered during those tests.

Boucher admitted, "There's no excuse for that, there really isn't." Boucher said, "We're looking at the age of our fleet and we're going to replace the age, our oldest trucks".

U-Haul promised W-FIVE it would clean up its act and get unsafe trucks off of Canadian highways.

So, this year, W-FIVE wanted to know -- had U-Haul kept its promise?

On the Road

Teaming up with CTV reporters in Vancouver, Calgary, Winnipeg and Montreal, W-FIVE went undercover again, renting U-Hauls and taking them to licensed mechanics to see if they met the provincial safety standard test.

In Vancouver, three U-Hauls were tested. The problems cropped up right away, starting with bad brakes. Then fire hazards. The mechanic pointed out rusted parts and loose wires. All items that would keep the trucks off the road. Out of three tests, all three U-Hauls failed.

In Calgary, tests revealed bad shocks and dangerous steering. Two U-Hauls were tested. Both failed.

In Winnipeg, we tested two trucks. In the first the mechanic pointed out a leaking master cylinder on one of the trucks, which would affect the brakes. He also found the left upper ball joint and wheel-bearings loose. But the second offered a glimmer of hope for U-Haul. Despite some problems the truck was deemed roadworthy.

In Montreal, the first vehicle to be tested had only a few minor problems. The mechanic gave it a pass.

But with the next truck, there were signs of trouble. First the headlight knob came off. Then the check engine light came on. And the mechanic also found a major transmission problem.

Under the hood, the mechanic's verdict: "We've got lots of problems here. It shouldn't be on the road, this truck."

The final tally for W-FIVE's U-Haul road tests this year - nine U-Hauls tested seven failures.

Constable Cory Kostyra has been pulling unsafe U-Haul's off the road for years.

Ontario testing

W-FIVE isn't alone in uncovering safety problems with U-Haul vehicles. Ontario Provincial Police regularly run safety blitzes on the busy Highway 400, north of Toronto. Constable Cory Kostyra has been pulling unsafe U-Haul's off the road for years.

"We've been doing these inspections and we've been working with U-Haul over the last number of years, and it can be very frustrating when we continue to see the same problems over and over and over and over again," said Kostyra in a W-FIVE interview.

"I don't really think that it's too much to ask that we expect vehicles that are operating on our highways to be in a safe condition. My family drives on the roads with these same vehicles, and it makes me nervous."

Last year, W-FIVE asked Canadian U-Haul vice president Claude Boucher about the O.P.P.'s long-standing safety concerns.

Boucher replied, "Well, they were talking to us, we just weren't listening. But they do have our attention now."

But months later the O.P.P. was still pulling unsafe U-Hauls off the road.

When the problem is very serious, such as broken brakes, the OPP pulls the plates off the vehicle - on the spot. In Ontario, the driver can't get the plates back and the vehicle back on the road until it passes a safety inspection.

But U-Hauls may have found another way to get back onto Canadian highways.

U-Hauls are registered and plated in Arizona where the company is headquartered. Remarkably, in Arizona no safety inspection is required before a pulled plate can be replaced - and a truck can hit the road again.

W-FIVE asked Constable Kostyra if U-Haul has returned with proof of safety inspections to retrieve the pulled plates.

"They have done for some, I have records of some of them, some of the safety's being done for those vehicles, but there are still an alarming number of license plates that we still have in our possession that they have not come back for."

So what happens to the U-Haul vehicles that have been pulled off Ontario roads but whose license plates are still with the OPP?

Cory Kostyra can only speculate.

"That's a great question."

Palmer says 'They don't care about what kind of harm they are doing people. They don't care about what kind of trucks they put on the road.'

Rental Nightmares

U-Haul is headquartered in Phoenix, Arizona.

Internationally, U-Haul operates 1,300 moving centers and distributes its trucks and trailers to 14,000 independent dealers. You can get a U-Haul at the corner store, a garage, even a photography studio -- these are mostly 'ma and pa' businesses renting U-Hauls on the side.

In Canada, U-Haul is worth $21 million. Last year, 600,000 Canadians rented trucks and trailers from U-Haul. Typically, they are Canadians trying to save money on their moving costs -- like Jill and Rob Palmer.

In July 2006, the Palmers rented a U-Haul vehicle to move all of their family belongings from British Columbia to St. John, New Brunswick. Near Winnipeg, the parking brake seized and the truck Rob Palmer was driving stopped in the middle of the road. He barely managed to avoid being hit by following vehicles and to get the U-Haul off of the highway.

Started up again, they drove into Winnipeg and on busy Portage Avenue the brake seized again.

Jill Palmer told W-FIVE what happened to the family belongings.

"Five times it jams on, five times our contents go bashing forward into the front. And then they have to tow it and all of the contents go spilling backwards."

For ten hours, they recall, U-Haul's local mechanics tried to fix the parking brake. But they couldn't. And, instead of replacing the truck for the remaining 3,600 kilometers to their final destination in New Brunswick, U-Haul offered another solution. Jill Palmer was astonished about what U-Haul told the mechanics.

"You're not going to believe what they said - remove the parking brake completely and give them a couple of blocks." Palmer added, "Here we are with a truck that has no way to park anyway, and now has no parking brake, so you've got a twenty or thirty thousand (pound) truck with all our possessions that could roll away and kill someone."

The Palmers finally made it to their destination, scared and shaken. Their belongings broken and battered. Jill Palmer is still waiting to settle the insurance claim.

"They don't care about what kind of harm they are doing people. They don't care about what kind of trucks they put on the road."

(To view photos of the Palmers' move go to http://4palmers.spaces.live.com)

Roadside Inferno

Carys and Adam Sabaz couldn't agree more. Three years ago the couple was moving from Thunder Bay to Barrie, Ontario in a U-Haul. Halfway to their destination, the U-Haul that Adam was driving burst into flames.

"I got out of the truck right away and tried to open the hood and noticed there was a lot of smoke and I looked right underneath the engine and I could see fire dripping from underneath the engine."

Adam's wife Carys remembers, "I saw actual flames coming out the side of the hood, big flames. And Adam was saying 'it's on fire' and he went running down the highway flagging down cars. I got the dog and we jumped out and backed away."

The couple could only watch as the truck went up in flames. After the fire was out they called U-Haul, hoping for help. They didn't get it.

Carys explained to W-FIVE, "The only thing U-Haul offered us was a replacement truck and that would have been an absolute waste because we had nothing to haul anymore. An irony, U-Haul still presented the family with a bill for the rental to the place where the truck was destroyed by fire.

Luckily, Adam had paid for U-Haul insurance coverage when he rented the truck. So the couple got $25,000 for their burned belongings. But not before Carys and Adam paid the $700 rental fee for using the truck that destroyed virtually everything they owned.

Flying Wheels

W-FIVE featured Dan Donnelle's story in last season's "Risky Move" episode. Donnelle had rented a U-Haul truck to move some furniture from Woodbridge to Toronto. He was driving 100 kilometres an hour on one of Canada's busiest roads, Highway 400, north of Toronto, when all of a sudden he heard a noise.

"It was really scary. I was just trying to keep the truck on the road."

Suddenly, the two back wheels of his U-Haul truck came flying off.

"One went towards the middle of the median. The other went in front of the truck around into the ditch and the truck literally bounced about eight or nine times in the air," recalls Donnelle.

With some skillful driving and lots of luck, Donnelle managed to pull the lame vehicle to the side of the road, scared but happy to be alive.

Ontario Provincial Police charged U-Haul under section 84.1 of the Ontario Highway Traffic Act, or "wheel separation" legislation. The court found U-Haul guilty. On September 21, 2006 U-Haul was handed an $8,000 fine. The judge chastised U-Haul for endangering public safety on Ontario roads.

When questioned by W-FIVE, U-Haul's lawyer in this case, Peter Pliszka, denied that U-Haul considers the fine a cost of doing business in Canada.

"Absolutely not. U-Haul takes safety very seriously and is not something that one can put a price on. I mean, U-Haul is committed to making sure and taking whatever steps it can to ensure this kind of incident doesn't occur again."

"Over the past two years," Pliszka said, "U-Haul has reinforced its training and instruction to all of its dealers about the importance of following all of the guidelines and rules that are established by U-Haul for maintaining a safe fleet of trucks."

Unsafe Business Practice

But Lyn Viner, Joanne Potts and Lacey McKay, who all used to work for U-Haul, have a different view of U-Haul's commitment to safety. They weren't surprised at all about safety shortcomings there.

Lyn Viner inspected and fixed U-Haul trucks. He said to W-FIVE that he was forced to put unsafe trucks and trailers on the road.

"What would happen at the end of the month when it was the busiest time of the season, we were told if there were minor infractions pass it." Viner explained, "Lights that would be out, back up lights not working, marker lights out, turn signals if one was out the other worked, that was fine. Primarily we were told at the end of the month everything has to roll, no matter what."

When W-FIVE asked Viner if that included vehicles with seatbelt problems, he answered, "Yes, definitely. Seatbelts that didn't connect or seatbelts that were missing, or seatbelts that were hidden under seats because they weren't working."

Ontario Gets Tough

In 2005, the Ontario Ministry of Transportation tested 693 moving van company vehicles. U-Haul's failure rate was five times higher than the industry average.

So in 2006, the Ministry did another round of testing. Only this time they just tested U-Haul trucks - 500 of them. The failure rate? Exactly the same, five times worse than the average for do-it-yourself moving vans.

Donna Cansfield is Ontario's Transport Minister. In August 2006, fed up with U-Haul's continued failure at roadside tests, Cansfield suspended U-Haul's license to operate for 15 days. The suspension wasn't enforced, however, because U-haul promised to stick to a plan to meet the industry safety standard.

Cansfield told W-FIVE about Ontario 's commitment to safe roads: There's no reason why they shouldn't be at the industry standard, absolutely none at all," said Cansfield. "I do not want anybody in an unsafe vehicle on our roads where there would be any consequences. So if they don't clean up their act, they're gone."

The deadline - September, 2007. If the company fails to meet the Ministry's conditions, U-Hauls will be banned from Ontario roads for 15 days.

Cansfield has also contacted her contemporaries in provincial capitals across Canada. And other provincial ministers are also starting to take notice of U-Haul.

B.C.'s transport minister, Kevin Falcon

Other Provinces

W-FIVE went to Charlottetown, P.E.I. to track down transport ministers from every province who were there for an annual meeting.

When pressed by W-FIVE, B.C.'s transport minister, Kevin Falcon, revealed that his own province had conducted its own tests of U-Haul vehicles.

U-Haul's failure rate? Twice the industry average. The main defect in the trucks that failed could be a problem in this mountainous province.

"50 per cent of them had brake problems," Falcon said. "So we will be doing everything we can in cooperation with other provinces to make sure that as best we can we make this a national effort to make it clear that we expect U-Haul to operate at a far higher standard."

Quebec's vice-president of road safety, Johanna St-Cyr, said that Quebec's also did its own testing of U-Hauls. The failure rate of the U-Hauls tested in that province -- more than double the industry average.

In every province where U-Hauls have been tested, they've shown a substandard safety record.

Joe Shoen, the media-shy head of the family-controlled U-Haul empire, agreed to a rare television interview with W-FIVE.

Head of the Company

W-FIVE wanted answers from U-Haul about its Canadian safety record. In a surprise appearance, Joe Shoen, the media-shy head of the family-controlled U-Haul empire, agreed to a rare television interview with W-FIVE. Shoen was accompanied by U-Haul mechanic, Antony Grocott.

W-FIVE asked Shoen why U-Haul was allowing unsafe vehicles onto Canadian roads.

Shoen replied: "If you look at our actual statistics with the Ontario MTO, you will see that our performance has improved and is lower than their average for all people inspected last year. So, U-Haul is not putting unsafe vehicles on the road."

But a document Schoen gave to W-FIVE to support his claims may have been misinterpreted. According to the Ontario Ministry of Transportation that document compares the U-Haul failure rate to the failure rate for all professionally-driven trucks and buses targeted by the police in Ontario on the lookout for unsafe vehicles. But, when U-Haul is measured against other rental moving truck companies, Ontario officials say, its failure rate is five times higher than the industry average.

U-Haul claims to have put 500 new trucks on the road, shut down some problem dealerships and fired some employees. But as W-FIVE pointed out to Mr. Shoen, the safety problems have persisted.

W-FIVE asked about Gordon Annis' broken seatbelt. U-Haul mechanic Antony Grocott answered.

"That was incorrect. The OPP inspected the vehicle and found no fault."

But court records state that police who inspected the seatbelt at the accident found that it was inoperative, and that the previous renter had said that the seatbelt didn't work. A Transport Canada inspection found glass lodged in the seatbelt.

(To view the Ontario Court Of Justice Transcript see R v Milne-Proceedings at Plea of Guilty )

U-Haul disputes any responsibility.

"When the seatbelt was inspected by the forensic, they could not find a problem with the seatbelt." said Groscott.

True, according to the court document. But only after the seatbelt was removed from the vehicle. Too late to save Gordon Annis. He needed the seatbelt to work during that fateful drive.

Gordon's teenage daughter, Carol, has been left behind, heartbroken. crying and wondering why her father died so needlessly.

"He always told me to wear a seatbelt. And the one time he didn't was the one time it killed him."

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